Why young people should read great novels

I can’t claim to have a large amount of friends. Almost intentionally I’ve always kept my friend base low – quality over quantity. That’s the introvert in me. Nevertheless, down the years I’ve found myself visiting countless homes. Homes of friends, homes of my wife’s friends, homes of friends of friends and of course in-laws and family. 

Whenever I visited their houses, there was always something that stuck in my head, even though I might not have paid immediate attention to it. I knew it was there. And it was this – the fact that hardly any of them seemed to own any books. Or at least if they did, they were really well hidden. 

It’s been done a thousand times – how people don’t read anymore. Or how the novel is dead, or dying, or something. It’s an interesting thing for me to observe, being a keen reader myself. 

A good friend of mine even said to me last year that since he’d started using smartphones, he’d hardly read a single book. Yes, smartphones are largely to blame, but the decline was well underway before the Nokia 3310 was replaced by fancy Samsungs and iPhones.

The stats seem to back this up, of course. It’s all there when you research it. It’s easy to blame the youth, and indeed, they’re not reading much these days. Yet the biggest declines in reading are in the older age groups.

It seems to me that self-help non-fiction still does well in many circles. The genre that has suffered the most it seems, is perhaps the most important genre of them all – the classic novel. The literary novel. Call it what you like – the stories that make us think. The ones that make us question ourselves and our place in the world. 

Men in particular don’t seem to read fiction anymore. Women are better at the practise of reading novels, although I notice it’s often your sort of “book club” books. You know the ones. The female lead, sucked into an adventure or saga of sorts. There’s a mysterious male character. Not overly good looking, but definitely ruggedly good looking, with kind eyes. Don’t forget those. It plays out, there’s a fairly happy ending and the two of them get together. Or the alternative – they get together for a while but it’s a painful ending – often with the male character dying at the end. You know the type. But at least someone is reading something. 

The effects of these reading declines seem clear to me. When I look at the world I see it in an increasing state of division. People doubling down into their echo chambers, acquaintances and friends unable to speak to eachother for difference of opinion. Family members estranged because of a different outlook on the world. Constant arguing on Twitter with strangers. It’s all rather pathetic. 

Why?

Because we don’t read anymore. Or, should I say, we don’t read things that stimulate our sense of critical thought. And if you think that’s overly simplistic, consider this – the classic novel put you in the shoes of the character. You were forced to  investigate ideas from all sides, and forced to go along for the ride. Through different characters you were able to see things from different points of view. 

Then there’s the difficult or contrarian ideas – something our society seems to struggle with. All great novels of the past  would be based through the lens of the lead character, and through this the reader would be forced to understand the thought process and inner dialogue of the character. Right or wrong. Comfortable or uncomfortable. Simple or complex.

Modern headline culture merely tells people what media companies want them to hear, in a few words. No need to think critically at all. You’re already told what to think. 

The decline of the novel has coincided with a strange period in society as a whole, and perhaps contributed to this element of a dumbed down world.

Instant gratification. Bite sized content. The classic novel takes time and effort. 

Perhaps the saddest part isn’t even about the critical thinking element, or the intelligence part of it, but it’s in just how much the youth are missing out on in terms of enjoyment. Indeed, society as a whole. One of the greatest pleasures in life is the reading of great novels. In my case it wasn’t merely the reading of them, but more in all the thinking that they’d made me do afterwards.

Sometimes I still page through parts of the Grand Inquisitor chapter of the Brothers Karamazov and marvel at the incredible insightfulness of the ideas and  conversation

Or the end of Gates of Fire, or snippets of Anna Karenina, or my favourite parts of East of Eden, or Geissler and Sivert talking at the end of Growth of the Soil. Or the chilling conversations between Winston and O’Brien in 1984. A few of many examples. 

It feels like we’re losing something great. I sometimes think of 1880’s Russia, and how they hung on every new chapter Dostoevsky put out. How it would stimulate dinner conversations. How it would help define the zeitgeist of their time. Now the zeitgeist lurks in Tik Tok videos or celebrity Instagram posts. The great novelists resigned to their seat at the back, as society hurtles on indifferently.

My advice to young people is simple – you haven’t lived properly until you’ve read the great novels. Seek out the great novels and give them your time investment. If non-fiction helps us find answers, it’s in the classic fiction that we find the questions. And in this modern world of ours, it’s the questions that are essential – the questions we’re forced to consider about life. About the world. About living. About ourselves. 

Smiling at cats in a Covid world

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During this lockdown I’ve tried to take my four year old daughter to the local cricket ground every day. Once there we both enjoy it. A bit of fresh air and sunshine are very effective treatments for the sense of frustration and brain fog that continual working from home brings.

It’s beautiful there, surrounded by trees leading into the forest. I’ve watched them turn from bare to full green blossom in the last month. It’s in these moments that I’m grateful that my daughter and I have each other. The rather weighty inconvenience of trying to work during lockdown with a young child are quickly whisked away by the afternoon breeze, the purity of the company and the serenity of the environment.

On one particular afternoon I was reminded of how many sad stories this Covid crisis must have created. One of the small benches on the edge of the field was taken by an old man. He sat on his own. It was a bench we’d usually sit at when we went to the field. We obviously avoided him and the bench and went about our playful business. We eventually sat on a bench on the other side of the field. After a while I noticed the old man get up. With his walking stick he slowly ambled his way across the field toward the main road, walking past a small boy playing ball with his mom. Did I note a smile and a nod from him to them? An old lonely man out for a small drop of society and company.

I couldn’t help but imagine him making his way home to a quiet room where he lived alone. Perhaps a wife long passed. No kids or grandkids visiting. No lazy late afternoons in the pub, chatting to his few fellow old regulars, no making some chit chat with the bar ladies. Nothing. Nothing but an old man on his own.

I had work to do, and we made our way home. Together.

A couple of weeks ago our next door neighbor explained to my wife that her mother was close to 90, and lived in a nursing home with a dementia condition. Her mother kept asking why she wasn’t visiting, with no understanding of what was going on. That particular situation is close to home for me, so I’ve thought about it more than once. An old woman in a home, perhaps not knowing anything other than the light that was her daughter. That light suddenly not there anymore. Where is my daughter? I imagine her asking the nursing staff, with no comprehension of their answers.

One afternoon I walked slowly up to the corner shop for milk. There’s something lonely about a windy Saturday that seems to fill your mind and soul with a sense of desolation. As I walked I stared over the rooftops at the trees rustling. Even the birds seem to stay away. Not a raven or pigeon in sight. A beer can rolled down the street.

I walked past a man standing well away from a front door where a very old woman looked out. As he said something his hand movements seemed apologetic. And the distance he kept suggested a desire to not be obtrusive. I only caught a few words from the old woman as I walked. “I’m 85. My husband is 86, and he has a heart condition.” There was a quiet desperation on her face. A morbid fear of the outside world had clearly overtaken her.

Old and young alike. Putting my child in front of Netflix while my wife and I try to get work done is more sad than frustrating for me. What must she be making of this? Abruptly dragged from her preschool where she loved friends and teachers alike. She’s a single child. No interaction with kids for a month now. We try our best, but I as I watch her re-create Paw Patrol episodes with small figurines on the living room mat, I want to shake my fist at the world. There’s a tragedy even in this.

Back in South Africa I read a story about a young man shot in the leg by police. It was in a township. The story went that he was stealing food one night for his family. I once again imagined a very possible scenario. Perhaps he was a waiter in a Sandton restaurant. Perhaps that meager income was all that his family relied on. With the lockdown his income was suddenly brought to an abrupt halt. Within days his family of 5 in their shack starving. Desperate. What was he to do? Now he’ll never walk again.

Finally something has come along and affected us all, wherever we may be in the world. And instead of bringing us together, once again humans have found that within the crisis of the virus, we still have to argue among ourselves. And while I watch with disdain as this virus forces the ugly side of human nature play itself out in its usual style, looking for scapegoats, laying the blame, and ramping up politics, I’m reminded of all the millions of stories not making it into newspapers and TV news. Maybe not even newspaper worthy, but tragic in their own sense.

Some tragedies don’t make headlines. Some rapid declines don’t make the front page of the financial section. And while some work themselves into a frenzy about governments, economies, politics, someone else sits alone at home. Hearing the window blinds clink against the window in the breeze. Watching silently yet again as the day darkens into night. Waiting for the phone to ring.

I myself have much to be dejected about. My beloved football team were marching towards a title I thought would never happen. That got stopped in its tracks. Worse than this, my father was set to visit at the end of April. I’d been looking forward to it for months. I had it all planned out. The walks we would take, the pubs we would visit in between. This morning I went for one of the walks I would have done with him. And of course, it was a beautiful morning. The sun slanted through the trees of the forest and all I heard was the sound of birds. The kind of morning where one finds it hard to believe that bad people or bad events may indeed exist in the world. What a time of year this is. The morning seemed to mock me in a strange way as I walked alone.

Still, what can we do? One can still enjoy the sun rising. Birds singing during a calm dusk. Flowers opening as the seasons change. They can’t take the spring from us. Or out of us.

I was in the queue outside at Waitrose, wearing shorts for the first time this spring and the gentle breeze reminded me of a Mediterranean beach, with that undercurrent of cold in it. Seeming to tell you that you are in fact still in the cold continent of Europe. Every now and then a pleasant burst of greeting pierced the quiet. Green shoots were showing on the trees. A fat ginger cat sauntered up to the blonde woman in front of me. Two metres away, of course. She was pleased to see it and played with it. She watched as it came to me. She smiled. We smiled at each other, and shared a pleasant word about it. I gazed back to the sky and let the sun wash my face. The world keeps turning. And even in strange times, spring still comes around, and we can still smile at cats. And each other.

Sitting In A Room Alone – Why Pascal Was Spot On

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Back in the 1600’s, distinguished French inventor and physicist Blaise Pascal wrote “All of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.”

As some of you may know, I moved to the UK from South Africa during the early part of 2019. Life is of course different here, most notably in the realm of commuting. I’ve written a little about this here, but as time has gone on my increase in people watching has led to one or two interesting, and disturbing observations.

The quote from Pascal has always resonated with me, and I’ve sensed it to be true, but nothing has reaffirmed this more than navigating the London transport system and walking the streets of the city.

Being reasonably observant, what struck me quite early on in my time in London was the sheer scale of mindless distraction that people require. What do I mean by this? One can’t help but notice the people around you and what they’re doing. And what they’re doing is everything they can to distract themselves. I mean, I could excuse a lot of this if they were doing things to grow themselves like reading intelligent books, but this is rarely the case. No, they’re on their phones scrolling. They’re playing mindless Tetris-type phone games. They’re watching some TV programme. They have earphones stuck in their ears with strains of loud beats audible to you next to them. Or they’re having long, mindless conversations. The types where you start wondering whether there is in fact anyone on the other end of the line.

I get the distinct impression that these people don’t ever switch off the constant buzz of distraction occupying their time and minds. It’s a constant stream of phone calls, social media, Netflix and more. From the tube station it’s a ten to fifteen minute walk home for me through quiet streets. I always embrace this as a great chance to just gather my thoughts and enjoy the quiet walk, taking in the birdsong and reflecting on the day and life in general. Yet I’ll walk past countless people walking home with earphones in, engaged in an ongoing dialogue. At other times I’ll continually observe people jogging or gyming with headphones on, seemingly incapable of doing it with their own minds as company. Yes, everyone is different, and maybe I’m sounding overly critical. But I can’t help but think what I observe are symptoms of a societal problem, and makes me think that Pascal was spot on in how to solve humanity’s problems.

Of course, I’m guilty of some of these behaviours. The ride on the tube is long. It gets boring. You need distraction sometimes. I do a lot of this. I read, I scroll social media. Yet it seems to me that for many people, their entire lives are a distraction. Or more accurately, their entire sense of self is drowned in a sea of over stimulus. Watching all of this I get the distinct feeling that people are unable to spend time in their own minds, so to speak.

This reminds me of something I’ve observed with many directors and managers I’ve worked under down the years in the corporate world. People who would literally run from meeting to meeting for an entire day, day after day, complaining of busyness whenever you’d speak to them. When I’ve observed this in the past I’ve always thought these business managers and leaders would have done well to find an hour of alone time every day to close their office door and basically do nothing other than sit, think and reflect on the business.

I’m an introvert who doesn’t need that much conversation in daily life. Certainly not of the mundane type. So I recognise that most people need to talk more than I do. Yet I can’t help but watch people talk endlessly on a tube ride for 20 minutes at a time . . . about nothing in particular. I guess some  things are hard to understand for people like me. I can’t help but wonder whether they’re not maybe adding unnecessary clutter into their minds, and lives. These people are obviously doing whatever works for them, but when I look at this I see a generation that needs constant external stimulation. Who can never be alone. Who can never exist without mindless entertainment. Who can never, god forbid, sit quietly in a room alone. We’ve created a society of individuals in touch with everything and everyone, but out of touch with their own selves.

Why is this? This constant need to be entertained – is it a form of papering over the cracks? A refusal of sorts to look below the surface? Are people afraid of their true selves? Perhaps not afraid. Maybe it’s more a sense of unease with true self-reflection and self-observation. Or is it simply a case of them not understanding mindfulness?

Sitting quietly in a room for a while as a habit is incredibly good advice. I look at the world and sometimes despair at the lack of self-reflection and self-awareness. I see a society so sure about its convictions. So reluctant to question beliefs and opinions. So reluctant to peel the layers off the ‘self’.

Sitting quietly in a room does many positive things, for starters:

  • It allows you to observe your thoughts, and thinking patterns
  • It gives you a chance to reflect on your own thoughts, behaviour, and ideas
  • It allows you to question yourself, your biases and opinions
  • It allows you to just calm down and be

Even if it’s not full on meditation, a practise of quiet time alone with no stimuli can only be good thing in the long term, and from observation, is an incredibly rare thing. We could all benefit from it.

Mindfulness and self-exploration are concepts handed down through millennia. Pascal’s point is just another take on this, but a particularly relevant one. Advice from the 1600’s more relevant than ever.

 

Three advertising books and the story of a world moved on

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I’ve been planning to build on my humble collection of marketing and advertising books, for various reasons. Primarily to read them, of course. The other day I took all the ones I own out to see how many I had and to proudly gaze upon my not-so-immense library of knowledge. In amongst them were the three books in the photo above — Eating the Big Fish by Adam Morgan, How Brands Become Icons by Douglas Holt and Truth, Lies and Advertising by Jon Steel. Three timeless pieces of marketing literature which have stood the test of time. But that’s not why I’ve dragged you into this blog post today. Seeing them again reminded me of the story of how I bought them second hand a few years ago.

It was 2013, after living in Johannesburg for two years my wife and I wanted to go spend Christmas in Port Elizabeth where we’d moved from. The only problem was that we had to take our two Jack Russells with us. The Christmas period isn’t conducive to dog sitters. I scoured the internet looking for somewhere halfway that had space and could take dogs. Not an easy task that time of year. Eventually I found a spot in Smithfield which ticked both boxes.

Off we went. Smithfield, despite probably being a little better than most Free State small towns, was nevertheless a bit of a nothing town. I remember driving alone to find a liquor store for a beer and a bottle of wine after settling in, and finding a liquor store of the type that has all the booze locked behind bars. The shop assistant served you as if he was in a jail cell. Squinting my eyes (didn’t know I’d need my specs to pick out wine), I pointed to something that was probably the only non-sweet wine there. Beer quarts were, of course, in abundance. I walked back out into the dusty street, the sun fading behind the hill. All eyes on me. I felt a little like Clint Eastwood about to enter a final shootout scene.

Enquiring about dinner options, our guesthouse recommended an establishment two houses down. To be fair, I don’t think they had anywhere else to recommend. By default we had our dinner venue. Strange, I didn’t see anything that resembled a restaurant two houses down. Just old fashioned houses with dusty yards bordered by farm-like fencing.

We walked over at 7pm with that nervous feeling of not knowing what you’re in for. In through a rusty old gate, around the house and . . . . oh! This wasn’t too bad. Quite charming in fact. Cute booths ran along a glassed in area at the exterior of the place. Quaint decorations were displayed on the walls, places to sit outside, the sun was going down in a lovely orange glow, while music played from somewhere inside. This was fine. More than fine.

A man showed us a seat. He offered wine, which he probably wasn’t allowed to do — they weren’t licensed. I wasn’t about to say no. After a while a guy in a wheelchair rolled around and introduced himself. An old white guy with a beard. Clearly the owner, he explained the meal options we had. We had a choice of two dishes, which he described with great enthusiasm and delight, detailing each ingredient and the resulting flavours. Eventually the food came, and while not award winning, it was wholesome and did the job.

The place was filling up. The old man was doing a lot of wheeling and a lot of talking around us. He finally got around to us and asked how we enjoyed the meal. We got to talking a little more. He discovered we were both in marketing and advertising. His eyes lit up, and he relayed his story that he was in fact an ex-lecturer of marketing at a leading advertising school in Johannesburg. Had been for many years.

“Want to see my advertising book collection?” He asked. His eyes glinted. Turns out the old chap was a bookseller as well. This was getting better. “Follow me,” he said, and wheeled further into his place. I followed behind him, and he led me to an entire wall of books, all marketing or advertising related books. Second hand, of course. He recommended three in particular, which I duly bought — the three in the photo above. I am a bit of a sucker in this regard. Or am I? Here they are with me in London. They made it from Smithfield in the Free State, through five years in Johannesburg before travelling across the world.

“Have you seen hour main bookstore?” He asked as I was paying. Huh? Main bookstore? He gave directions to the place next door. We shook hands and my wife and I went out into the well-lit night. A path led to a lit up house next door with the door open, just as he described. And there it was. And entire regular sized house packed with books.

I’d spent enough. And clearly all the good stuff was next door in the main house. But still, the fact that this charming bookstore was here, in this nonentity of a town, open at that moment at night, was an experience of its own. Thinking back now that was one of the better bookstore experiences I’ve had. I love bookstores. I never walk past one without entering. I can walk around them for ages. But these days, oddly, I never buy. I take photos, then buy on Amazon. Usually at a cheaper price. I’m part of the problem aren’t I? The small, unique, the charming, pushed aside. For the big. For the uniformly soulless and charmless.

Fast forward five years. We spent the night in Smithfield at the end of 2018, for the first time in five years. We’d come to prefer the other route down to Port Elizabeth, usually leaving the dogs with a sitter. Consequently I hadn’t been through Smithfield for that entire time. On this occasion, despite no dogs, we had a much more precious traveller with us — our daughter. The restaurant was gone. The building looked empty. Probably for some time by the look of it. There was a derelict air about it. The bookstore next door was obviously gone too. Hard to believe these places were ever there. The rusty exterior features of the house and garden seemed to whisper a story of a world that had moved on. Why do we expect houses and shops to remain the same? Nothing else in life does. The charming restaurant and its owners gone. In its place . . . nothing. An empty shell of a building. Somehow I doubted that the old man in the wheelchair and his fellow owner had gone on to better things in the years that followed.

Driving the next day I thought of the small grocer shop in our area when I was growing up. The type where you could get a coldrink, cigarettes, milk or a lotto ticket. We came to know the owners — both sets of them. My mother and I would stop there often. Next to it was a small liquor store and then a butchery. Like the Smithfield restaurant that shop is long gone too. Much longer. How many others like it? In the name of progress we steamroller over the small, the unique, the memorable. The grocer and the restaurant in Smithfield are one and the same. Relics of another time and place. Forced out of that time and place by a world that just consumes and moves on.

And here I am now in London in 2019, looking at these books, remembering the night I bought them. Of course, they’ll always be in my shelf, because they will always tell more than one story. They’ll remind me over and over again of a world that was.

North Sentinel Island and the Paradox of the Modern World

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I try to avoid the news these days. ‘News’ as we like to believe it is not news anymore, but an interpretation of facts through the lens of the reporting entity’s worldview, beliefs or worse, ideology. It’s become a propaganda machine designed to make us outraged and sow division. It’s probably always been like this, but this modern, divided world has made it worse.

This has largely helped my level of happiness. Particularly in a South African context. The less I read about all of our problems and the stupidity at large, the better. So I try to stick to stories on culture and opinion pieces. Yet despite all this, every now and then a story pops up that I can’t help looking further into. One such story occurred last week.

A rather moronic American missionary, John Chau, ignoring all the advice and knowledge that he had, attempted to spread the gospel to the people of North Sentinel island. He paid off local fishermen to take him to the island. After a couple of tense and rather futile engagements, the fishermen returned to collect him one morning, only to find the islanders dragging his body along the beach to bury him.

What got my initial interest was that these hostile tribes still existed out there. As I often do I resorted to Twitter to get the general feel for this story. Of course, the usual overreactions and anger were coming from the usual corners. But it was on Twitter that I discovered one or two fascinating threads on the island which led me to dig deeper into this story.

To summarise (it’s all available on Wikipedia), the island has long been feared and avoided. In the 1880’s a European, Maurice Portman made a few trips to the island, probably angering them with his antics of measuring them and abducting them before returning them. In 1981 a cargo ship ran aground on the island. While the crew waited for help to arrive, they noticed, as the days passed that the tribesmen on the beach were building boats and seemed to be preparing to attack them. They got air lifted out just in time. The only thing that saved them were rough waves. In 1991 anthropologists got close enough to give fruit to the tribe. But it was promptly made clear to them by the tribesmen that they needed to leave, and quickly. In January 2006, two fishermen, fishing in illegal waters were killed by the Sentinelese when their boat drifted too close to the island. It’s got to the point that the Indian government has made it illegal to come within 5km of the island. It is worth noting that the murders of John Chau in 2018 and the fishermen in 2006 led to no charges. The tribe literally exists separate from laws. Nobody has come within touching distance of them and lived since 1991. After the tsunami of 2004, a helicopter flew over to check the island, and was met with arrows and rocks. Other than these encounters, nothing is known of them. Literally nothing. Through all of history there are less than 10 accounts of contact or sightings of them.

Here they are. In 2018. A tribe of people that the world has completely and utterly passed by. A people who’ve only interacted with the outside world four of five times in the last 150 years, usually very briefly and violently. A people more cut off and primitive than any tribe of people you’d find in the deepest bowels of the Amazon. This isn’t exactly an island in the middle of the pacific, thousands of miles from anything. It sits snuggly in the Bay of Bengal between India and Thailand, right alongside the larger Andaman Island.

Even their demographic appearance and skin colour is in stark contrast to the Asian region the island is situated in, indicating that the entire demographic development of the region and larger Asian subcontinent over the past couple of millennia has completely passed them by.

The most striking thing for me when thinking about this island is that the entire history of mankind has gone by and they’ve missed it all. The rise and fall of the Greek Empire, the rise and fall of the Roman Empire, running water, the dark ages, colonialism, the industrial revolution, the telephone, medicine, electricity, motor vehicles, the two world wars of the 20th century, Hiroshima, the cold war, the age of the internet. Yet here they are oblivious to is all. Not knowing that these events even existed. Somehow the world has left them as is for thousands of years, living their lives as if in the stone age. Do they even know what the concept religion is?

Of course, the next question is what we do with this knowledge. I for one think these poor people should just be left alone. Completely. That seems pretty clear to me. But the deeper question that all my reading on North Sentinel made me consider was what would actually be best for them long term? Ignoring the immediate trauma of introducing them to an alien, modern world, what would benefit them most in the long run?

There’s no clear answer to this, even in my own mind. Twitter was divided, as it always is. The irony about my search on Twitter was that the same people praising the North Sentinelese and pleading us to leave them alone were the same types of people who express disdain at nations attempting to be as autonomous and independent as possible, labeling them ‘nationalist’ or something worse. My wife, on the other hand, somewhat a bleeding heart on certain social causes, surprised me by suggesting they be integrated into the modern world.  Clearly this isn’t an easy one to answer for anyone.

We’re very quick to condemn this modern world of ours. I see this expressed all the time. People lamenting this a ‘toxic world’ or ‘troubled times’, or complaining about all the ‘damage we’re causing to the world’, or suggesting that inequality is worse than ever. Oddly enough I’ve found myself defending this modern world we live in. We’re almost certainly living in the greatest ever period of prosperity, peace and health in the history of the world.

I’ve just read Steven Pinker’s book, Enlightenment Now, where he makes specific arguments around the astounding progress we’ve made in the last century or two.

Some of the key points Pinker makes are the following:

  • Life expectancy is up. In the 1700’s it was less than 30. It’s now over 70.
  • Globally, inequality of income has been steadily declining over the past couple of decades.
  • The portion of the world living in extreme poverty has declined from 90% of the world in 1820 to just 10% of the world today. This decline seems to be accelerating.
  • Work hours have decreased from over 60 hours per week in both the US and Western Europe in 1870, to around 40 hours today.
  • It’s nearly 80 years since war broke out between great powers. This kind of peace hasn’t existed in centuries. (My suspicion is that you’d have to go back to a period in Roman history called the Pax Romana to find when this last happened)
  • Two thirds of the world now live in democratic societies, compared to one percent in 1816
  • Most of the fatalist predictions through the past few decades about the environment haven’t materialised at all.
  • In addition, hunger and famine have drastically declined. Child mortality and maternal mortality rates have been turned on their head. Deaths from all types of accidents have been reduced. Literacy rates are on the rise. Young women have closed the education gap with men in Western countries, often surpassing men in percentages attending universities.

In addition to this, a point I often make is that knowledge is now easier to attain than it’s ever been before. By far. We’re all walking around with super-computers in our pockets, utilising technologies we didn’t know existed 10 years ago. In 1956 about 6 men were needed to move a 5mb hard drive. Now 128 gigs sit comfortably in your pocket, with all the information we could ever want about any topic.

We live in relative luxury compared to 99,9% of the history of human beings. So why do we all think it’s so shit? Why are we all complaining about how bad humanity is and how toxic our world is?

Don’t mistake me from an optimist. Far from it. I for one don’t see the world with rose tinted glasses. I don’t see it as moving towards this amazing utopia. Not one bit. Yet my reasons for this and causes for concern with the world may be different from the next person. I think to myself, if I were to somehow to engage with these people of North Sentinel (and live to tell), and convince them to stay on their island and reject the modern world (which they seem all too ready to carry on doing), what arguments would I make?

I could easily ask them if they wanted to live in the kind of world that makes them slaves to debt, or to their jobs. Where they have to commute for two hours a day to work 8 hours a day just to survive. I could ask them whether they wanted to work half their waking lives behind a desk, working for somebody else, month after month, year after year, looking forward only to the two weeks at beach at year end. You know, the kind of place where the North Sentinelese live their whole lives. I could ask them if they wanted to live under a government. When they enquired about what a government is I’d explain that, you know, it’s a bunch of people you usually don’t choose to lead you, but who make decisions that you need to abide by. I could ask them if they wanted to live behind gates walls and electric fencing for fear of their fellow man breaking in and killing them (Assuming they don’t kill their own people, and I’m pretty sure they don’t. As a side note, Marco Polo did write that he thought they were cannibals. But I’m assuming they’re not.) Maybe I’d ask them if they wanted lose their edge, become fat and stare at a screen all day, in fascination with celebrities. Would they want to live in a world of people that lost sight of life, death and living to an extent that they spent their time outraged by trivialities they see on the news which don’t apply to them?

Maybe the North Sentinelese are living the dream. Maybe they’re happy. Maybe they wake up in the morning and do exactly what they want to do. Maybe, despite creating a better world, we need to ask ourselves, are we creating better lives? Are we really free people, living lives as we wish, like the North Sentinelese do every day? It feels to me as if we’re slowly but surely eroding one piece of enjoyment after the next, all in the name of protecting ourselves. First it was smoking. Now they’re coming after sugar. How long until our overlords decide red meat is bad for us and start making it harder to attain? Then alcohol. There’s already a move to make comedy so politically correct that it’s no longer funny. Our governments’ are increasingly telling us what they think is good and bad for us. It’s not inconceivable that in 50 years’ time we’ll be living like robots in an utterly joyless society, controlled on what we eat, what we watch, what we say and what we do.

Despite all the progress, we perhaps need to remind ourselves that the progress of humanity does not need to coincide with a declining ability to live life. After all, life exists to be lived, to be savoured, to be experienced. Maybe the North Sentinelese know this better than we do.